By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, as the (slightly ungrammatically reworded) sentiment has it, or ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone’. This quotation can be traced back to Jesus, and to a specific incident described in the Gospel of St John, but what is the context of them, and what did Jesus mean?
The relevant chapter of the Gospel of John is chapter 8. It begins with Jesus going to the mount of Olives and then, early in the morning, returning to the temple in Jerusalem. His followers arrived and sat down, and he began to impart his teachings to them.
The scribes and Pharisees – who taught and upheld established Mosaic law from the Old Testament and viewed Jesus as a dangerous radical – brought unto him a woman ‘taken in adultery’ (that is, she’d been caught in the act of being unfaithful to her husband). These men threw her into the middle of the group and accused her of being caught in the act of committing adultery.
These scribes and Pharisees upholding Old Testament law challenged Jesus: ‘Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?’
John tells us that, in putting this question to Jesus, the Pharisees were tempting him, so that they would be able to accuse him. If Jesus agreed with them that she should be stoned, that would make him a hypocrite, since one of this key messages was to counsel mercy and forgiveness. God would judge us for our sins.
But if Jesus replied that the woman should not be stoned to death for her ‘crime’, then his claim that he had come to ‘fulfil’ the law of the Old Testament rather than to overturn it would look pretty spurious. In Matthew 5:17, for example, Jesus states: ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’ By ‘law’ here he refers to Mosaic law. If he failed to follow the Mosaic law which demanded that the woman be put to death for adultery, he would be contradicting his own claims.
So, what did Jesus do? He appeared to be in an impossible situation, faced with these two choices. But he chose to do something else.
According to John, he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he hadn’t even heard them.
They continued to ask him what should be done with the woman. So eventually, Jesus stood up again, and said: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ These words are found in John 8:7.
Note that, in the King James version, he says ‘let him first cast a stone’, rather than ‘let him cast the first stone’, which is how the quotation tends to be misquoted in common everyday speech.
By saying ‘let him first cast a stone’, where ‘him’ refers to a man among the Pharisees who is ‘without sin’, Jesus followed the law: Deuteronomy 22:22 does indeed state, ‘If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.’
And Leviticus 20:10 states: ‘And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.’
But where was the guilty man? The woman cannot have sinned by herself. Adultery, like tango, requires two. So he was gently pointing out that the scribes and Pharisees themselves had failed to follow the law as closely as they should have: they had brought the woman but not the man guilty of adultery, even though they had apparently caught both in the act, and were required by law to bring both before the law to answer for their crimes.
And by telling them that they must find someone without sin among them to commence the sentence against the adulterous woman, Jesus put them in an impossible position. They knew that none could be found who was entirely spotless or free from the stain of sin.
But what did Jesus write upon the ground? This is one of the great mysteries in the Gospels. Was he harking back to the Old Testament and the tablets on which the Mosaic law was inscribed, on the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai? Or was he writing down the names of some of the ringleaders among the Pharisees, and writing their sins alongside their names, to illustrate his point that none of them was likely to be ‘without sin’?
Yet another theory suggests that the woman may have been naked, since she had been caught in flagrante delicto, and so Jesus may have been averting his eyes from her nakedness. But then, why write in the dirt on the floor? This explanation seems the least convincing, although if Jesus was actually writing something noteworthy on the ground, it seems odd that John doesn’t tell us what he was writing.
All we can do is speculate based on what the text does – or doesn’t – say. But the moral message of ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’ is clear, and Jesus had neatly exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.